“This room is awesome,” Branford Marsalis proclaimed when the curtain opened to a sold-out crowd at the PAC November 10. That evening, the hall was filled with jazz played by the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble, followed by the distinguished Branford Marsalis Quartet.The concert was a triumphant close to Jazz Celebration Weekend 2007, which began Friday, Nov. 9 with a concert featuring Patricia Barber in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel.
To begin the Friday evening concert, the talented Lawrence University Jazz Singers took the chapel stage under the direction of Lee Tomboulian. A number of students shone in their solos, scatting to the stars in songs such as “Sandu.”
Barber and her quartet emerged into a darkened hall, which gave listeners the feeling of being in a nightclub, albeit one with cushioned seats and no smoke.
While all four players looked suave in black, Barber’s shoeless feet were at times distracting. Yet even when perched up on the piano bench, they didn’t hinder her rich voice or smooth piano playing.
Adding to Barber’s piano and vocals were Neal Alger on guitar, Michael Arnapol playing bass, and Eric Montzka on drums. They jumped right into a song without words whose highlight was the cowbell’s sharp clang.
Throughout the concert, Barber’s voice doubled the melody in her right hand, while the quartet supported her with a stream of steady, energized sound. They played a satisfying song entitled “Hunger” from her newest album, “Mythologies,” in which the words “never ever enough to eat” spun and somersaulted atop a winding tune played in unison by the four instruments.
Throughout the concert, Barber communicated with her quartet — and the audience — through conspicuous hand gestures and shouts of “Oh!” and “Shit!” when she struck a wrong note.
According to the program notes, “Barber’s gone academic” — just in time for her Lawrence debut.
Saturday evening’s concert was an enjoyable blend of old and new. As Branford Marsalis acknowledged before the encore, “Yeah, we’re getting older. And it’s kind of cool.”
A view from the balcony showed a fair amount of white hair in the audience, yet cool was definitely present at the PAC. As LUJE trombonist Ken Wiele remarked, “It was cool to hear old-school musicians playing modern jazz.”
The Branford Marsalis Quartet is comprised of Marsalis on alto and tenor saxophones, Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Reevis on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. The group played six songs, ranging from an ode to Reevis’ dog, entitled “JJ Was His Name,” to Thelonius Monk’s tune “Rhythm-a-ning,” to a song by Branford’s famous brother Wynton called “Free to Be,” to a song written by Watts in honor of throwing his son out of the house, appropriately titled “And Then He Was Gone.”
An unexpected delight was Henry Purcell’s “Oh Solitude,” for which Marsalis provided the informative commentary, saying, “It was written in 16-something.” He stressed that they were not playing an arrangement; besides the solos, he had simply printed the music and handed it to the quartet.
The piece was a rich blend of old and new: 17th-century Baroque music played by the saxophone, an instrument developed in the mid-19th century.
For many audience members, the highlight of the concert was the opening performance by LUJE. The group played two pieces written by Director Fred Sturm, who introduced himself as a man “sinking desperately into old geezerhood.”
Both “Praising Khangai” and “Capoieristas” are part of “Migrations,” a 23-section work influenced by world music and written for legendary jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin. “Praising Khangai” was inspired by a Mongolian praise song and featured Professor Janet Anthony on the cello. During one striking section, the cello played the opening measures of Bach’s “First Cello Suite” amidst the sweet jazz sounds.
In “Capoieristas,” a song which gets its name from a type of Brazilian martial arts born out of the slave trade, the group featured Lecturer in Music Tom Washatka on tenor saxophone and Professor Dane Richeson playing a Brazilian percussion instrument called a berimbau.
Seeing the single-string, wooden berimbau next to the shiny metal saxophone provided another image of the old versus the new.
Wiele particularly liked “the quiet energy” of “Praising Khangai,” and he enjoyed the experience of playing with Anthony and Washatka. “Tom was burnin’,” he said. “That really got me.”
Wiele also offered a few words about LUJE’s director, saying, “‘Fred ‘Baby’ Sturm is wonderful to work with, despite his affiliation with the Green Bay Packers.